NHS Five Year Forward View: still no skin in the game

NHS England and other English health organisations have produced a five year ‘forward view’ [here]. The refreshingly short and precise document establishes a new approach to the

English: British National Insurance stamp.

“Skin in the Game” British National Insurance stamp. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English health service, something political reform has failed to achieve since perhaps the beginning in 1948, namely the realisation that top-down reform really doesn’t work. This is a bit surprising given how oftenNHS folk have travelled, particularly to the US, and other places, where the notion of a top-down approach is anathema. All these visits, reports and breathless commentary on lessons learned has really, it now seems, to have been for nought.

We also now have some explanation why the attempts to adapt lessons and approaches from other countries has failed — the heavy overarching deadweight of central control has stifled innovation. Given the additional volumes of studies of the NHS, think tank policy papers, round-table discussions and consultation, researchers, in the UK at least, seem to have been trapped within their own paradigm and failed to see the internal fault lines that pointed to this blind-spot.

Anyway, that said, we now see that Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, has not wasted his time in the US, as not only does the report quote Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, but tacitly acknowledges that the US (and other countries, but not in the UK) favour decentralised experimentalisation with payer and service delivery flexibility.

Lawton Burns in his important book on healthcare innovation [The Business of Healthcare Innovation, 2005, @Amazon] notes that one reason the US dominates the health technology innovation space is precisely because of the flexibility to experiment, try new things in healthcare service development.

This report, together with the other surprising ‘discovery’ that the funding of healthcare and social care are also part of the problem, after decades of dysfunction, shows that there is now a window within which major changes can be achieved to remove perverse policy incentives, drop barriers to change and get rid of the zombie administriative rules that kill off good ideas.

So where might this all go? Yes there are some very good examples already in place and one hopes more to come. But putting the cat amongst the pigeons may have other rather interesting consequences.

If we see increased power shifting to cities, will we see Swedish-style county-council run healthcare? Such an approach has the merits of democratic accountability, and challengingly, puts funding options within local taxation strategies. Given years ago I advocated with the other big city in the UK a local-council run NHS which caused no end of criticism, I would be surprised if this doesn’t come back on the agenda.

The rising priority of prevention also highlights one weakness of the NHS.  Dating back to 1819, employers had legal duties imposed on them for the health and safety of their workers, a responsibility which the creation of the NHS in effect removed at least in respect of health.  The report notes that employers pay National Insurance as though that were sufficient motivation. What the report fails to add is that NI employer contributions are not experience-rated in terms of the health of the workers themselves. The NHS has flirted with workplace healthcare in the past, but the concept of “primary care in the workplace” has failed. Stevens will know (and others should) how many countries separate workplace health from general health. Some places call it “workers compensation” and it involves risk-based employer premiums, adjusted for actual workplace health, injuries and accidents. Countries with such systems include the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, and others.  What taxation does is risk-pool, but that means it is hard to link individual behaviour to risk.

American Accountable Care Organisations and other similar approaches in other countries of long-standing, only work when organisations are free to associate in ways that make financial and healthcare sense. US ACOs are forming partly in response to the financial signals in healthcare legislation there, but these signals, coupled with systems of rigourous inspection (and a failure regime), focuses minds. Vertical or horizontal integration in the NHS is needed, and would serve to remove at a stroke the barriers that bedevil patients. I’ve seen how building primary care onto the ‘front’ of the hospital enabled speedy patient access to specialists (they simply came down from the wards) and avoided inappropriate admissions. Buying a nursing home added a step-down into the coummenity releasing pressure on in-patient beds. GP integration toward secondary care pulls diagnostic imaging and laboratory technologies toward the patient, and removes hospital monopoly control of what is the major cause of delayed diagnosis.

But, the end result is in the UK, consumers, patients, employers, have no real skin in the game, which in these days of behavioural economics means that it is additionally challenging in the NHS to activate the essential incentives to align patients around their care, or employers around healthy workplaces other than through moral suasion.

We may need to revisit how to use the NI contributions as co-payments to create the necessary financial incentives that serve to quantify risk to both patients and employers.

Of course, one should be grateful for small miracles, which is why this report is welcomed.

P.S. I suspect this can be done without new money.

 

 

 

 

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